Good reads for endurance nerds

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‘Tis the season to offer a few book recommendations. Here are a few that I’ve enjoyed this year or that I’m looking forward to cracking open in the New Year:

Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible MarathonEd Caesar

Don’t be fooled: it’s not a delusional fantasy about how humans are going to lop three minutes off the current marathon world record. Instead, it’s a lovely meditation on the meaning of the marathon, and the men and women who are trying to push its limits. It has a particular focus on the great Kenyan runner Geoffrey Mutai, who Caesar tailed at races around the world.

The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica’s Sprint Factory, Richard Moore

Okay, this isn’t a book about “endurance,” but I’m taking a broad view of the kinds of books that you might find interesting. The book isn’t a Bolt biography, but rather a wider exploration of why Jamaicans are currently sprinting so fast. If your knee-jerk answer is “drugs”... well, Moore, a seasoned cycling journalist, would agree that’s a good place to start asking questions. But as he digs deeper into Jamaican sprinting culture, he comes up with some other potential answers that are worth considering. 

How Bad Do You Want It?: Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle, Matt Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald has been writing about the psychology of endurance performance for more than a decade now and is really one of the pioneers in terms of trying to take this body of research out of the laboratory and into the field for everyone to try. His latest book examines a series of notable races through the lens of Samuele Marcora’s “psychobiological” theory of endurance. The races make it a fun read, and the psychology is thought-provoking.

The Way of the Runner: A Journey into the Fabled World of Japanese Running, Adharanand Finn

Back in 2013, Finn published Running with the Kenyans, an account of his six months of running in Kenya searching for “the secrets of the fastest people on earth.” For his follow-up, which was published earlier this year, he ventures to Japan, which if anything has an even more running-crazed culture than Kenya. Here’s a good teaser he wrote for The Independent.

Racing the Rain, John L. Parker, Jr

This is the new prequel to Once a Runner, the classic hardcore runner’s cult novel. If you’ve read Once a Runner, I don’t need to say anything more. If you haven’t, I’d suggest you start there (chronology be damned). I’ll be honest: I haven’t read this yet. I’m a little scared, because OAR was so important for me, and Again to Carthage (the sequel, published back in 2010) was inevitably a disappointment. This one is (from what I’ve been told) not a running novel, but apparently it’s good. Just like hardcore Star Wars fan may grumble about prequels but will inevitably see them, I’ll be reading it soon.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, Alfred Lansing

I’m a bit tardy in recommending this one - it was first published in 1959, but I just got around to reading it earlier this year. It remains the definitive account of Ernest Shackleton’s attempt to cross the Antarctic in 1914 and his crew’s subsequent two-year struggle for survival. It’s an amazing adventure story about a different kind of endurance.

Fast After 50: How to Race Strong for the Rest of Your Life, Joe Friel

The best of this year’s batch of practical books on science and performance. It’s actually a great overview of the science of endurance training for anyone, but particularly focused on how to adapt as you get older. Solid advice, clearly presented.

A Youth Wasted Climbing, David Chaundy-Smart

This is the book I’m finishing up right now. I’ve gotten into rock climbing over the past few years, and Chaundy-Smart has been one of my guides to this world. He’s one of the founders of Gripped (the Canadian climbing magazine) and is also editorial director of Canadian Running magazine. The book is a memoir of his teen years, growing up as a climber in southern Ontario where there’s a conspicuous lack of mountains - a lack that, at one point, famously led him and a friend to climb Toronto’s CN Tower. But the underlying theme that all athletes will relate to is the obsession with pushing limits and the search for meaning in that obsession. “For her, climbing was an opportunity for education, travel and personal growth,” he writes of a girlfriend from whom he’s drifting away, “but for me, it was just a path to more climbing.”

Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?: Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise, Alex Hutchinson

Yes, I’m pimping my own book. If the title is too long and unwieldy, think of it as the “Sweat Science” book - it’s my attempt to present the evidence for what we know (and don’t know) about the science of fitness and training, in the form of 111 Q&As. It came out a few years ago, and Amazon just lowered the price to less than half the cheapest price I’ve ever seen it. At that price, how could you not?